Former civil servants give their view on the case for reformby John Kerr / October 17, 2013 / Leave a comment
Caricatures from the title sequence of “Yes Minister”— Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (left); Minister for Administrative Affairs Jim Hacker MP (right); his Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley (centre) © Gerald Scarfe
John Kerr (former Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office)
The distinction between policy (a matter for ministers) and delivery (the civil servant’s task) is a fallacy. The dichotomy is false. When initiatives come top down—whether by ministerial edict (the Lansley NHS revolution, universal credit), Treasury fiat (Help to Buy, rights for shares), or Number 10 soundbite (all energy tariffs to be the cheapest)—mistakes are possible. They become probable if warnings of downsides and difficulties of implementation are dismissed as disloyal. If it happens a lot, as under both Brown and Cameron, systemic consequences follow: ministers blame the civil service for failures, good civil servants vote with their feet, the relationship breaks down.
The public service ethos entails a sense of personal responsibility, to ministers but also to the public. Good policy tends to result from a synthesis of political insight and apolitical advice. No good minister wants sycophancy from civil servants—special advisors provide more than enough—what they respect is expertise, particularly on ways and means, knowledge of where the bodies are buried, and honest advice.
What good civil servants hate is not being present at the creation: getting their orders without any prior chance to affect them or exercise what they see as their responsibility, including if necessary the duty to dissent. If the outcome is one which they can’t, in good conscience, implement, of course they must change jobs or resign, but the good ones go anyway, when shut out from the policy-making process. The policy initiative which can’t stand up to searching in-house analysis isn’t fit to see the light of day; and the minister who isn’t strong enough to relish the process isn’t up to the job.
So ministers shouldn’t try to hand pick their permanent secretaries. Or bring them in from outside: the business of government can’t be picked up overnight. And ministers shouldn’t blame policy failures on defective delivery by civil servants: policy is bad if it can’t be delivered well; loyalty is two-way; and ministers are responsible for all their department’s work. Can it really be right that the West Coast rail franchise fiasco produced no ministerial casualties, only promotions? If ministers weren’t involved at every key stage, where were they ?
Permanent secretaries need to ensure that officials spend longer in their jobs, acquiring expertise. I once headed a Treasury division that included Howard Davies and Gus O’Donnell. Ideas abounded. But the key player was our boss, a 40-year Treasury lifer, who understood systems, and could instantly spot which ideas would fly and which would not. Can it really be true that the average length of service in today’s Treasury is only four years ? I remember the VAT men trying to get their “cornish pasties” gambit into the 1983 Budget, but old Treasury hands laughed it out of court. Unlike in 2012. Without expertise, which ministers respect, “omnishambles” can result.
The apolitical career UK civil service used to be the envy of our American and French friends. The concept of a lifetime career in public service, and the continuity, honesty and independence which went with it, now needs to be rebuilt. A good start would be once again to have a full-time, career Head of the Civil Service.
Robin Butler (Cabinet Secretary under Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair)
I do not deny the right of ministers or anyone else to criticise the civil service when it fails. Nor do I deny them the right to bring in whatever expertise they believe will help them achieve their objectives. During my time as head of the service we did a lot to open appointments and services to outside competition.
But I am convinced that the current bad mouthing of the service by ministers will not promote the improvements they and the leaders of the service want to bring about. I call two examples to mind. One is William Slim who turned defeat into victory over the Japanese in Burma not by recrimination (except against himself) but by leadership and encouragement. At the other end of the scale, Gerald Ratner, originator of the “Ratner effect,” destroyed his own business by publicly rubbishing its products.
In a recent magazine article, Peter Jones recalled the speech of Menenius Agrippa to the plebs of Rome when he persuaded them that every part of the body politic, like the human body, must work together for the whole body to flourish. Ministers should bear that in mind.